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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

What we’re watching for on election night in Kansas

By Andy Marso | November 08, 2016

#KS2016

This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.

At the end of the balloting on Election Day, the complexion of both the Kansas Legislature and the state’s highest court could be radically different.

There’s less suspense about the top of the ticket, at least as far as Kansas goes. Unlike the razor-thin margins in some presidential battleground states, polls show Republican Donald Trump well ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the reliably red Sunflower State.

And with the exception of the surprisingly spirited contest in the 3rd Congressional District between Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder and Democratic challenger Jay Sidie, races for the U.S. Senate and House, all currently held by Republicans, don’t appear competitive.

Farther down the ballot, anti-incumbent sentiment drove the outcome of state legislative races in the August primaries. There is no reliable public polling to indicate the extent to which that will carry over into the general election. But it’s plausible the trend will continue given that recent polls again have ranked Republican Sam Brownback as the nation’s least popular governor.

Shifts in the state Senate

Democrats are betting on a one-two punch that could allow them to join with moderate Republicans in a coalition majority in the 40-member Kansas Senate on certain issues like the LLC tax exemption or school funding.

In the primaries, six Republican members of the Senate were ousted by more moderate challengers. Moderates also claimed three open seats vacated by conservative Republicans who chose not to run for re-election.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley isn’t alone in thinking that Democrats are well-positioned to add to those moderate gains.

“I’ve been telling people we could pick up between three and eight seats,” said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

Currently, Democrats hold only eight of the Kansas Senate’s 40 seats. Many observers expect them to hold on to those and to win a contest for an open seat in Wichita. Beyond that, several Democratic challengers appear capable of upsetting Republican incumbents in Johnson County, southeast Kansas and the northeast corner of the state. 

Moderates, conservatives could come together

Photo by Stephen Koranda/Kansas Public Radio Anticipating that Democrats could pick up some seats in the election, Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita is attempting to unite all of the chamber’s Republicans behind her.

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Anticipating that Democrats could pick up some seats, Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita is attempting to unite all of the chamber’s Republicans behind her. She unveiled a set of policy priorities for the caucus in October. 

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Wagle’s maneuvering likely will allow her to survive as president of the Senate. But he said any gains that Democrats make would give moderate Republicans more power because of the voting coalition they could form.

“Even if that doesn’t mean Wagle is out as leader, it does give moderates more leverage to negotiate on things like (committee) chairmanships and even negotiating on bills,” Miller said.

Following the primary losses of several conservative incumbents, legislators already were predicting renewed discussion of issues like Medicaid expansion and the 2012 income tax cuts championed by Brownback and conservative leaders.

More changes in the Statehouse

Eight Republican House members lost primaries to more moderate challengers. Several more conservatives vying for open seats also fell to more moderate candidates in the GOP primaries.

Now, Democrats are mounting strong challenges to some of those moderate Republican primary winners along with more conservative GOP incumbents. That has Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin who is running to be the next House speaker, predicting substantial gains for both moderate Republicans and Democrats.

He said that Democrats, who currently hold only 28 of the 125 seats in the House, could control as many as 45 by the end of the Election Day tally. They could then form a coalition with the 40 moderate Republicans that Jennings anticipates will be elected and control the House with a veto-proof majority.

“It’s not really good to have one party have tremendous control over the process,” Jennings said during a recent episode of Statehouse Blend, the KCUR podcast. 

Unusually hot judicial retention races

In other election years, the down-ballot votes on whether to retain judges have been considered almost a formality — judges are almost always retained.

This year, though, those retention votes are worth watching, because conservative groups have put together a concerted campaign to oust four judges.

What’s at stake there is the ability for Brownback to remake the state’s highest court during his final two years in office. There are a total of seven justices, and if the four who are targeted get ousted the governor would be able to make lifetime appointments for a voting majority of judges who rule on everything from death penalty appeals to school finance cases.